Faith & Thought

Pope Francis on Art And The ‘Thirst for Meaning’

by Father Robert Lauder

There was an important meeting last May in Rome at which Pope Francis gave a marvelous talk on art. How I wish I had been there. There are several ideas in the Holy Father’s talk that I find both beautiful and exciting. 

Honesty compels me to admit that one reason I am excited about what the pope said is that he expressed thoughts that I had been trying to express in several columns earlier this year. 

In fact, I received a letter from someone who read the columns urging me to expand what I had written in the columns into a book. Reading Pope Francis’ talk has persuaded me to attempt the book. Of course, Pope Francis expressed what I tried to express much better than I did. 

I may follow G. K. Chesterton’s idea that whatever is worth doing is worth doing poorly. I love everything that Pope Francis has written. I find what he writes deep and challenging. This talk is special to me. 

The following are Pope Francis’ opening remarks to those artists invited to the meeting: 

“I am happy to meet you in the course of this conference that has assembled poets, writers, scriptwriters, and directors from various parts of the world to discuss the topic of poetic imagination and Catholic inspiration. In these days you have reflected on how faith challenges contemporary life and in this way tries to respond to the thirst for meaning. 

“Meaning cannot be reduced to a concept, no. It is a total meaning that encompasses poetry, symbol, feelings. True meaning does not come from a dictionary, for that merely tells us the meaning of words, which are instruments for communicating everything that is within us.” 

I love the expression “thirst for meaning.” I don’t think that there is a great deal in our contemporary culture that helps us to tap into this thirst and to search deeply into questions such as: 

“Who am I?” 

“Who are we?” 

“What is the ultimate purpose and goal of the human journey?” 

I am surprised that so many of our contemporaries seem to be able to avoid these questions for much of their lives. My experience has been that some who have avoided these questions are forced to ask them when they experience the death of a loved one. 

From the few great artists whom I have met I have discovered that what they are trying to do with their art is something of a mystery even to them. They do not completely understand what they are doing. 

I think often of a statement that author/director Ingmar Bergman, perhaps the most talented person in the history of cinema, made. He imagined an artist sitting in a room on a sunny summer day observing specks of dust floating in the air. 

One speck of dust for some reason captures the artist’s attention and perhaps fascinates the artist. If the artist stays with that speck of dust, Bergman claimed, the artist will discover that the entire film is present in that piece of dust. That amazes me. Discussing fiction, Flannery O’Connor wrote the following: 

“If a writer is any good, what he makes will have its source in a realm which is much larger than his conscious mind can encompass and will always be a greater surprise to him than it can ever be to his reader.” 

Pope Francis made a statement that should encourage anyone involved in teaching the humanities to high school or college students. The statement may be especially important today when some colleges are cutting back or even dropping the humanities from their programs. This seems disastrous to me. 

Pope Francis shared: 

“I have loved many poets and writers in my life, among whom I think especially of Dante, Dostoevsky, and others. I must also thank my students of the Colegio de la Inmaculda Concepione of Santa Fe (Argentina) with whom I shared my reading when I was a young teacher of literature. 

“The words of those authors helped me to understand myself, the world, and my people, but also to understand more profoundly the human heart, my personal life of faith, and my pastoral work, even now in my present ministry. Literature is like a thorn in the heart: It moves us to contemplation and sets us on a journey.” 

I am grateful to Pope Francis for mentioning the many important ways that reading great literature helped him. I believe that those who regularly read great literature are opening themselves to all sorts of growth. Reading great literature can help us not only to understand ourselves and others more deeply but can even lead to a deeper understanding of religious faith. 

Father Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ, proclaimed in one of his poems that the world is charged with the grandeur of God. Reading great literature can help us to see that.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.